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Opinions of Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Columnist: Anyanful, Akwasi

Delta, treat Ghanaians with respect like the rest of the world

On Monday, 17th August 2009, Delta flight DL 167 from Accra, Ghana to JFK, USA was aborted just before take-off. The pilot informed us passengers that he had to abort take-off and we should disembark the plane. Passengers then got-off the plane and after a little confusion were shuttled to area hotels. Those who wanted to go home were given 20 Ghana cedis. I must say the Delta officials did a good job, not the best, but quite ok. A look at the Delta 767-400ER plane showed that all the tyres had gone flat and the engine on the left wing was open. Delta's explanation to us passengers was that the tyres overheated when the pilot made the emergency stop so they just have to replace the tyres. They said nothing about the open engine or why the flight had to be aborted. We were further told that Delta engineers were flying in the following day with new tyres and they will examine the aircraft, fix any problems and then we would be on our way. Delta also told the press what they told us without mentioning why the flight was aborted or the open engine.

The Ghana Civil Aviation report on the incident was as follows- Just before take-off (i) the pilot detected in the cockpit that the flap lights were on. (Flaps are responsible for taking the aircraft up or down). Wisely, he decided to abort the flight to have it checked out. (ii). Since half the runway had already been covered by the plane, to prevent the aircraft from overshooting the runway, the pilot had to reverse thrust the engine, this caused the cover of the engine to slide open and because of a lever jam, the cover did not slide back to original position. They just had to fix or replace the lever and (iii) the application of the brakes caused the tyres to overheat resulting in the tyres becoming flat. They needed to be replaced. With this report, we told the Delta officials we were uncomfortable flying in that plane and we wanted a new plane or we would go to the press. They agreed to let us fly out with the plane coming in on Wednesday morning.

Such things happen, Airlines have to ensure the safety of their passengers and at the same time protect their image, so I was ok with the way they handled the situation professionally by keeping mute on some of the issues. My problem with Delta now, the reason why I am writing this article is what happened when we got to JFK. After immigration formalities, DELTA GAVE US $300 WORTH OF TRAVEL VOUCHERS. I complained that normally airlines give $500 vouchers, but the Delta officials said that was it.

Fast forward to 21st October 2009, A Delta/Northwest flight from San Diego to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport overshot its destination by about 150 miles. The pilots said they were using their laptops and lost track of time and location. After 78 minutes of radio silence, the pilots re-established radio contact with air traffic controllers and landed about 2 hours late. An airline spokesman said that the company has sent the passengers on the plane $500 TRAVEL VOUCHERS to compensate them for their inconvenience. Now wait a moment (i) WE WERE DELAYED FOR TWO DAYS - people may have lost their jobs, students were late to school, our families were very worried and we get $300 vouchers. Another batch was delayed for 2 HOURS AND THEY GET $500 VOUCHERS?? (ii) From interviews, the passengers said they were not even aware they were off-track. They believed they were just circling due to heavy traffic so they were not under any form of stress or duress. We were in a plane that aborted its flight, we were being forced to board that same plane but we resisted. We were under stress and in a state of anxiety from take-off through the 11 hour flight back to US because of what we had gone through. Surprisingly the stress less passengers received more vouchers than us. (iii) From Delta's website, JFK to Accra is 5129 miles. My ticket of $1273 was the cheapest Delta offered. The passenger next to me bought hers for $2400 five days earlier so the price range was $1273-$2400. From San Diego to Minneapolis, the distance is 1532 miles (about 3 times less) and ticket price ranges from $350 - $800 (about 3 times less). So averagely, we pay almost the same or slightly higher. Why then should we get less travel vouchers? I want to ask Delta. Why? Why? Is Delta trying to tell us that those passengers were more important? I think an explanation is warranted.

For those of you who will say that if I do not like Delta, I should use another airline, I want to tell you that, that is a defeatist statement. Whether we have our own airline or not, so long as Delta is flying to Ghana, we should demand the same level of service that Delta gives to people in other parts of the world. We are paying passengers and DELTA IS NOT DOING GHANAIANS A FAVOUR BY FLYING TO GHANA. It is just like telling me that if China is giving us a loan to build a stadium, we should accept any junk they put up. When Delta first started flying to Accra, it was three times a week, then five times and now every day. In June 2010, they will start Atlanta-Accra in addition to JFK-Accra with the 767-300 planes (oldest of all running 767s). Do you think they will increase flights if they are running at a loss? Delta was on the brink of bankruptcy till they started flying to Accra and Johannesburg. In a way, we helped them come out of bankruptcy. In India where profits have gone down maybe due to competition, Delta is reducing flights. Anyway, the good news is that come May 2010, United Airlines will begin flights from Washington DC to Accra and Lagos and I hope this competition will both drive prices down and also offer better service.

For those who say KLM and British Airways (BA) are better, I want to tell you that I do not believe they would have handled the flight cancellation situation any better. In August 2009, four of my friends could not make their KLM flights on different days because there was overbooking. KLM did not offer them any explanation or accommodation. Luckily, they lived in Accra. For BA, until recently, if flying from Accra to Atlanta, BA dumps you at Heathrow and expects you to find your way to Gatwick for the connecting flight. They do not care what you do or how you will get there. Also the services from US to Amsterdam or US to London is very different from Amsterdam or London to Accra, so those airlines are no better when it comes to us Ghanaians. The only way we can fight this prejudice is to speak and speak out loud and that is what I am doing.

Finally, I am no aviation engineer, but I have always wonder how safe it is for Delta to fly an aircraft for 11 hours to Accra, turn it around in 2 hours and fly 11 hours again to the US. I went on Delta's site to check if there are similar situations in other countries. A direct flight from Atlanta to Düsseldorf is 8.5hrs. Surprisingly there is no direct flight from Düsseldorf to Atlanta. Similarly, there is a direct flight from Atlanta to Copenhagen in Denmark. Again surprisingly, you have to go through France 90% of the time for the return flight. All flights from Europe (East and West) are routed through Paris. For Atlanta - Lagos, there is a six hour turnover.

On the other hand, Atlanta - Honolulu or Amsterdam - Mumbai with about 10 hours flying time also have 2 hour turnovers like Accra. Since Europe has very stringent rules, is it possible that a two hour turnover is not accepted there? Is it also possible that there is nothing wrong with the two hour turn over, but only that is more economical and convenient for Delta to use Paris as a hub? I do not know and time will tell.

So Delta, do not think you will have an easy way I Africa. I will be watching and will bring to light any injustice you give Africans. I am awaiting the explanation of the cheaper vouchers to the passengers from Accra or I will go the US networks with this story. We also await with earnest the beginning of service by United Airlines and hope for better things to come.